Theatre Review: Red at Wyndham's Theatre, London

Red - Wyndham's Theatre, London

Written by John Logan
Director: Michael Grandage
Cast: Alfred Molina, Alfred Enoch
Wyndham's Theatre, London
28 May 2018

The works of the American Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko don't strike you as being a particularly theatrical subject, but if you go to see the original large Seagram Building canvasses in the Tate Modern, just on the other side of the Thames from Wyndham's Theatre, you'll note that they have a unique sense of setting in a serene room of their own with dimmed lighting and cooler conditions from the rest of the gallery. There's definitely something theatrical about the way the works are presented for quiet contemplation and there's even something dramatic about them when you become absorbed in their shades of red turning to black.

It might come as some surprise then to find that there is nothing serene or quietly contemplative about the creation of these particular paintings, which are the subject of John Logan's play Red. Or not so much the subject as the product of Red, the subject tending to look behind the paintings at the man who created them, the conditions in which he painted, the techniques he used, his relationship and place within the artistic community at the time, his temperament and outlook on life and art in general, but more specifically and importantly, his concerns about his legacy and the uncomfortable relationship that art has with commerce. Far from serene, Rothko has a reputation for being very serious about his art, tackling “tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on”, as he once famously described it, with the intention of making the viewer weep.

John Logan's Red is also acquiring a reputation and awards for its depiction of the tormented artist who wanted to be anything but a tormented artist. The Lyric Theatre's production of the work in Belfast last year, directed by Emma Jordan with a stylish fluidity in a full-on production won numerous awards in the prestigious Irish Times Theatre Awards. The original West End production, directed by Michael Grandage, has been revived for a new run at the Wyndham's Theatre in London, with Alfred Molina reprising the role of Mark Rothko, running through that tumultuous period in 1958 when the artist took on a commission to deliver a series of paintings to be on permanent display in Seagram's exclusive New York restaurant, the Four Seasons.

In Logan's play, the work on the paintings is witnessed and assisted by a young apprentice artist, Ken. The relationship is to some extent the familiar one of a young man filled with enthusiasm and ideals learning the realities of life as well as the basics of his craft from an inspirational father-figure teacher. As far as art and painting are concerned however, it's an important lesson that needs to be learned and - certainly as far as Mark Rothko's methods are concerned - hard lessons are dispatched with little in the way of sensitivity. There's also a tragic element to the relationship that works the other way, and it's tragic because Rothko is on some level aware of the hard lesson also in store for him. One of his first words of advice is on the nature of the son to kill the father in order to become an artist in his own right. Rothko learned from the masters and then set out to destroy them, and he knows eventually a younger generation - represented by the apprentice Ken - will do the same to him.

That's the essential tragic thread that runs through the play - one made all the more real by the knowledge of Rothko's depression, his terminal illness and his suicide in 1970 on the very day that the paintings he is creating in this play were delivered to the Tate Gallery in London. Because, as we find out, the Seagram paintings were never hung in the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, Rothko eventually withdrawing from the commission, disgusted at the idea of his art being a commercial transaction that would present his work to a wealthy elite too concerned with their own egos and gorging themselves on expensive dishes to appreciate the honest vision and genuine torment that Rothko poured into these works.

The manner in which that life is presented in the play, in the airing of views between master and apprentice, is ingenious and comprehensive in its outlook, but honed to precision in the words and in the heated rapid-fire exchanges. All the boiling fury at the art world, the fakes and the phoneys, all Rothko's concerns about the world going to hell, about his own life going to hell, about the danger of his own eventual irrelevance, are poured into the angry but often hilariously funny exchanges. As well as that Red also covers other important themes and addresses fundamental questions on the creative process and on the nature of art.

Although the themes Red covers are applicable to many artists and to life in general, the play is far from being an academic discourse on the subject of art and creativity, on time and change, on life and humanity. Rothko is no mere conduit for ideas, but the play is also to some extent a revealing portrait of the man and the myth, the flaws and weaknesses, the rages and the depression. Red is shot through with humour in the combative exchanges of two men who are far from equals other than both being human and both subject to dark formative experiences and a need to express them with unflinching honestly.

As energised as Emma Jordan's Belfast production was, that underlying darkness and urgency comes through more keenly under Michael Grandage's direction and in Alfred Molina's magnificent management of explosive rage carrying a quiet deadly undertone of darkness. In another bit of theatrical/real-life mirroring, Alfred Enoch serves his apprenticeship alongside Molina, learning from the master, growing in confidence and into the role over the course of the play's intense uninterrupted 90 minutes.

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